an amazing turnaround, Hong Kong Cinema has given
us not one, but two really good movies in succession.
First there was Derek Yee's One Nite in Mongkok,
and now Love Battlefield, an unexpected romance-thriller
from director Soi Cheang. The two movies are similar
in that both take random, seemingly unconnected events,
and weave narrative gold out of them. Both films also
provide some measure of surprisea factor sorely
lacking from movies worldwide. While not as cinematically
enthralling as One Nite in Mongkok, Love
Battlefield does win the war of emotional resonance.
Both films can stay with you, but Love Battlefield
packs a resounding emotional punch that's been missing
from Hong Kong Cinema for far too long. It also packs
a full suitcase of plot twists and emotional turns,
so here's your spoiler warning. Turn back lest ye
run the risk of compromising your viewing experience.
We mean it.
Still with us? Eason
Chan stars as Yui, an average HK male whose relationship
to live-in girlfriend Ching (Niki Chow) is skating
on thin ice. The two met in a gloriously romantic
fashion (Yui helped fish Ching's shoe out of a river
somewhere in rural China), but the blush of newfound
romance inevitably gives way to daily problems and
minor relationship nitpicking. The two decide to take
a trip to Europe to bring some excitement to their
lives, but on the morning of their fateful trip, the
carand all their accompanying luggageis
stolen. Tensions and doubts take over, and in the
blink of an eye their relationship ends. Shot in an
empty parking garage, the breakup of the two young
lovers is compelling, painful stuff. It's not a single
event, but an amalgam of minor incidents and personal
gripes which spurs their emotional parting. In contrast
to the over-verbalized breakups usually seen in a
Hong Kong film, it's a charged, real moment in Love
Battlefield. That's a point for the filmmakers
But that's just the
beginning of Yui's trip into Hell. Lucky for him,
he happens upon the missing car on a side street.
Unlucky for him, his car has been commandeered by
a group of rogue Mainland drug smugglers, led by Wah
(Wang Zhiwen). Yui is a nurse, so he's kept alive
to attend to a wounded member of their gang, but the
ordeal is not an easy one. Yui wants to stay alive,
but it's clear that the smugglers will kill if absolutely
necessary. So Yui finds a second purpose: keep Ching
as far away from himand the smugglersas
possible. That's tougher than it sounds, because Yui's
friends (Raymond Wong and Kenny Kwan) are busy trying
to get Ching to relent and go back to Yui. But if
she does, she might get kidnapped too, or maybe even
killed. But when it becomes apparent that something
is not right with Yui, Ching has to decide her own
course of action. Then...IT ALL GOES TO HELL.
But in a good way, at
least for those who dig gripping cinema. The Chinese
title for Love Battlefield can roughly be translated
as "Love at War", which is a pretty accurate
description. Despite the film turning from relationship
drama to kidnapping suspense thriller, the focus of
the screenplay seems to be how love is part and parcel
of our liveseven when you're a vicious killer,
or a dopey boyfriend who's busy trying not to get
killed. The plot initially seems outlandish, but the
way in which events occur and emotions are revealed
is remarkably sound, and usually quite believable.
Ching and Yui's emotions shift based on exterior events,
and neither pauses for undue reflection on what it
all means. They might bitch and moan about how their
relationship blows, but when love is truly on the
line, they can decide in an instant what needs to
be done. That theme, and the way characters leap into
action to fight for love, is remarkably compelling.
It may sound cheesy, but thanks to a sharp, spare
screenplay and Soi Cheang's well-paced direction,
the literal theme ("People fight for love!")
and maybe the occasional line of dialogue are as corny
as things get.
Soi Cheang doesn't get
everything perfect, though. He gratefully humanizes
his characters, but some of the storytelling flourishes
are a tad overdirected. Sometimes a big event occurs
and there's an all-too-noticeable amping of the soundtrack,
or some slow-motion step-printing that just screams
"drama!" Love Battlefield has a very
emotionally sound screenplay, so doing the Michael
Bay thing can be overkill. There are also a few contrived
plot devices, and some uninteresting supporting characters.
The lead actors do compensate though, and never seem
to step beyond the boundaries of the characters they
play. Eason Chan is one of Hong Kong's more versatile
actors, and seeing him create a character like Yui
is a welcome break from the annoying saps he usually
essays. He shows fear, weakness, and finally strength,
and all the while there's not an ounce of popstar
preening. Niki Chow shows promise in a leading female
role, and Wang Zhiwen and Qin Hailu (who plays Wah's
preganant wife) are compelling as the "bad"
guys. The battle for love is something which applies
to all the characters in the film, which renders them
three-dimensional human beings and not bad guy caricatures.
Battlefield is compelling cinema because it simply
does what it has to without a lot of extra crap, like
moralizing or pontificating on existential issues.
There are some moments where Yui shows moral outrage
to the actions of his captors, but they seem to arise
naturally from character and situation, and don't
occur out of some arbitrary need to create meaning.
Eventually, Yui discovers just how precariousand
maybe even stronghis position is with the smugglers,
which changes his attitude and actions in a believable
way. Likewise Ching comes off as believably strong,
and whatever darkness or nihilism occurs feels likely
and not arbitrary. More than anything, what Love
Battlefield does best is sell its mix of genres.
This is a romantic-action-drama with massive coincidences
and a few obvious plot devices (Hello, two-way wrist
communicator!), but Soi Cheang handles the whole shebang
with confident storytelling and solid emotion. For
surprising, emotionally-complex Hong Kong Cinema, Love Battlefield easily wins the battle, if
not the whole war. (Kozo 2004)